A Lesson in Thankfulness

I’ll never forget the blizzard of 1996.  At least I think it was ’96.  Anyway, the snow was approaching and I had to get to Washington, D.C.  to keep a promise to my homeless friend Jakob.  He said his gout was acting up and asked for some aspirin.

I arrived at dusk. The street lights from Pennsylvania Avenue and the White House cast an eerie glow on the bench at Lafayette Square where he planned to sleep during the blizzard.

“Are you going to be OK?  This is supposed to be a big storm, you know.”  I tried to make my tone of voice sound ominous and urgent.

“I’ll be fine,” he assured me.

I guess my ominous tone wasn’t very ominous.

“I have been blessed with a stack of blankets and two tarps, I have lots of warm clothes on and I just had dinner.  I have everything I need.”

We stood for a while in the glare of lights from the home of the President of the United States. The air felt like the snow would start any second. After a few more words, I said goodbye, got into my truck, turned the heater on and drove home. That night and all the next day I sat in front of a warm fire, sipped hot chocolate and looked out the window as 40 inches of snow piled up outside.

As I was leaving, Jakob crawled under his tarp and between his many layers of blankets on the bench.  He awoke the next morning thinking somebody was sitting on him.  It was just the snow.  He had been warm and slept soundly through the night.

The homeless people we work with through TOP are a grateful bunch.  For many of them, if they have clothes on their backs, food in their bellies and some way to stay warm through the night they have enough. Everything else is a treat and a blessing.  You can’t believe the “thank you’s” we get just for handing out underwear!

So the next time you are tempted to complain about the hassles and aggravations of life, think about Jakob (he’s still on the streets) and give thanks for your underwear.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director


Heart, Mind and Soul Part 3: William’s Story From Served to Servant

This is the third in a series of posts about where the solutions to homelessness truly begin.  They are not in the opportunities, training or services offered to homeless people.  They are in the hearts, minds and souls of the homeless themselves. The longer I spend in ministry with these amazing people, the more I learn of the importance of attitude and that nothing else we do to address their challenges will work if their hearts, minds and souls are not in the right place.

To read the first two installments, click on the links:



His street name was “Black”.  He was homeless for over 12 years.  Drugs and alcohol were his life, but on Sunday afternoons when the youth volunteers from Teens Opposing Poverty (TOP) came to serve, he was always straight and sober.  For years, I just made small talk with him.  He spent most of his time talking with the teens.  Several of them became friends with him.  It was a few years before I found out his real name was William.

Then in 1995 something terrible happened.  William almost lost his life in a fire.  As he lay half-conscious on a hospital gurney, he watched his cousin die.  That horror was followed by 6 months of skin grafts and the loss of his left leg. He had a breathing tube stuck down his throat for so long that it paralyzed half his vocal cords.

After he got out of the hospital, William spent nearly three more years on the street until he was able to secure Social Security Disability.  It was during these three years that he went from being someone we served to one of my best friends.  He was, and still is, one of the most humble people I know, but he also began speaking with the deserved authority of someone who daily had to live with pain that most of us could not imagine.

When he spoke to our volunteers, William wielded his testimony like a knife cutting into our complacent hearts. He helped us to see his struggles and shared with us his belief that God saved him for a reason. In telling his story, he let the youth know that they were here for a reason, too, and that God can use even the bad things in our lives for good.

I’ll never forget the day we helped him get into his first apartment.  He stepped inside and closed the door, turning the lock several times.  Then he flipped the light switch on and off and finally looked up at the ceiling.  “Look,” he said, “No stars.” He hasn’t been homeless in more than 13 years since then.  But unlike many who get off the street, William kept going back and keeping in touch with the people he used to live with.  Little did I know what a valuable asset he would become to TOP because of that.

In the weeks and months that followed, William met us on every homeless ministry trip we took.  He was great with the teens, taking the shy ones under his wing until they were comfortable enough to start talking to the people we served.

As his confidence grew, he offered suggestions on things we could do differently, other sites where we could serve and better ways to connect with our homeless friends.  I wasn’t the only one who recognized William’s growth and willingness to assume responsibility and assert authority.  The teens did, too, and started turning to him when they had questions.

When TOP was able to hire staff, William became the coordinator of our homeless ministry in Washington, DC.  Now he develops new Street Ministry Outreaches and shares his powerful testimony with churches and other groups.  He went from being one of the homeless guys to a ministry professional.

I haven’t just seen this scenario play out in William’s case.  Giving those we serve a chance to become servants is a crucial part of our ministry.  Everyone has gifts to give, talents to use and faith to share.   When people have an opportunity to contribute, they hold their heads a little higher.  They remember that they can make a difference.

We must remember that we are in ministry WITH the poor, not to them.   Let’s not get so wrapped up in giving to others that we fail to give ourselves a chance to receive.  Understanding this one simple principle can bring out the best in all of us.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director


Heart, Mind and Soul Part 2: David’s Story – Believe

This is the second in a series of posts about where the solutions to homelessness truly begin.  They are not in the opportunities, training or services offered to homeless people.  They are in the hearts, minds and souls of the homeless themselves. The longer I spend in ministry with these amazing people, the more I learn of the importance of attitude and that nothing else we do to address their challenges will work if their hearts, minds and souls are not in the right place.

To read the first installment, click on the link: http://teensopposingpoverty.wordpress.com/2012/09/17/heart-mind-and-soul-part-1-jeffs-story/

The small group of middle-school girls laughed as they stood next to the imposing statue of Commodore John Barry in Franklin Square.  They had come to Washington, DC to serve homeless people, not expecting the entertaining encounter with David.  He was funny, engaging and held them in rapt attention.

Little did I know at the time that the forming friendship between this homeless man and group of girls would change his life.  David was trapped in the downward spiral of alcohol and crack cocaine addiction, but he was always straight on the Sundays we came to town.  I was glad he was there because he was so good with the young volunteers of Teens Opposing Poverty.

Over a dozen youth groups were involved in our DC ministry at the time, but David connected in a special way with this group of middle-school girls who served at the park every other month.  Over time, he began to see them as his “little sisters.”   In between the teasing and laughing, they built him up and made him feel special.   Just before he entered a rehab program, they encouraged him and told him that he could beat his addictions.

In other words, they believed in him.

David held tightly to their belief because he couldn’t yet believe in himself.  In late 2004 he entered a rehab program.  It wasn’t the first time, so he had little expectation of any lasting change.  After he completed the program, he got a job doing building maintenance.  I didn’t see him for several months.  The girls asked about him, and I told them that I assumed he was working.

When I saw David again in the spring I asked him how the job was going.

“I lost it,” he said. “I fell off the wagon and missed too much work.  But don’t tell the girls!  I’m clean again and I’m going to do my best to stay that way.”

Since then, David has experienced setbacks that would knock the most stalwart warrior off his horse, but he kept pushing.  He never gave up.  Although his self-confidence was shaky at times, he made a turn in his life.  Someone believed in him when he didn’t believe in himself.  His self-talk went from “why bother” to “it’s worth a shot” to “I can do this” all because he bought into the words of encouragement from some girls still too young to drive.

What they did for David cost nothing but their time, but it was one of the most precious gifts he ever received.

David Williams is now the Director of Teens Opposing Poverty’s Washington, DC homeless outreach.  He believes he can make a difference in this world because someone believed in him.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings

Executive Director


Heart, Mind and Soul – Part 1: Jeff’s Story

This is the first in a series of posts about where the solutions to homelessness truly begin.  They are not in the opportunities, training or services offered to homeless people.  They are in the hearts, minds and souls of the homeless themselves. The longer I spend in ministry with these amazing people, the more I learn of the importance of attitude and that nothing else we do to address their challenges will work if their hearts, minds and souls are not in the right place.

The young man was frustrated, scared and angry.  We’ll call him Jeff. His eyes were fixed on mine in a steady gaze as he recounted his recent trials.  He had made mistakes and served time for them.  Now he was on parole.  Despite diligently looking for a steady job, work was inconsistent. For the most part, he was getting by, but sometimes had some slow weeks. 

Jeff’s inconsistent pay made it difficult to get a place of his own.  He had been living with his mother, paying rent, until she moved to a new apartment.  For reasons he didn’t explain, he couldn’t move to the new place with his mother, but she had arranged for him to keep the apartment she had left for a few more weeks – or so he thought. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way.  While he thought he had three weeks left in the apartment, he came home two nights before to find all of his stuff in the hallway of the building.  After scrounging to find a place to put his stuff, he spent a couple of chilly nights on the street.  Needless to say he didn’t get much sleep, which didn’t help his mood.

Now he was worried that he had no address, which is required when you’re on parole.  Fortunately he had a good parole officer who knew he was trying to do things right and would cut him some slack.  He could get by a few days with no address and avoid a return trip to jail.

I named a couple of agencies Jeff could turn to.  He had already been to them and said they told him he would have to wait over a year to get a place under their affordable housing programs. He named several other agencies in the city he had turned to, but none could help him find a room to rent, much less an affordable apartment.  A mental health agency spent lots of time asking him about his childhood and his relationship with his parents.  He answered all their questions but didn’t feel he got any real help from them

“How is analyzing my childhood going to put a roof over my head?”  he asked as he stood up from the bench and paced in agitation.  “I’m trying.  I’m trying hard, and it seems every time I turn around, something else bad happens.”

Jeff’s story is typical of what we hear on the street.  Everyone I know who has made it off the street can’t count how many times they were shot down before they finally had success.  Sometimes they knocked themselves down by pushing their self-destruct buttons, but often circumstances beyond their control sent them back to the streets.

After 25 years of hearing stories of setbacks and successes, I have discovered two virtues that lie at the core of people who make it off the streets: perseverance and focus. Every homeless person I know who found housing never stopped trying and focused on that goal like a laser beam.  Even though they got knocked down over and over again, they picked themselves up and kept pressing forward.  They knew where they wanted to be, and they resolved to do whatever it took, whether it was work a job they hated, stay on the street longer to save money or continue to take advantage of free food, clothes and other services in order to attain their goal of a roof over their heads.

These virtues come from God or from within ourselves.  We can’t magically transplant perseverance and focus into somebody, but there are things we can do to help people discover them.

Dear Congress

Generally, I steer clear of politics.  It’s such a divisive subject.  But today I’m going to make an exception. As I write this, we are hot and heavy into the 2012 campaign season.  Print media and the airwaves are rife with lies, mischaracterizations, logical fallacies, mud slingslinging and other intellectual pablum designed to get supporters to the polls and turn the hearts of the undecided.

But there is a gorilla in the room people aren’t talking about.  It is a package of budget cuts and other painful economic measures that will hit us next year if Congress and the President fail to pass a responsible budget.  The fallout from their failure to act has the potential to drive this country into yet another deep recession. So herewith is my plea to our elected representatives.

Dear Congress:

As you campaign, remember that you have pushed this country to the brink of a fiscal cliff.  Please get off your ideologies, cooperate, and pass a responsible budget.  You really don’t have to wait until after the election to do something.  I’m sure the American people will be perfectly happy if we don’t have to live through yet another display of childish brinkmanship. You can do something now.  Yeah, I know that’s wishful thinking, but it’s such a nice dream.

There is enough poverty in our country.  We don’t need you to add to it.  We understand some of us may lose tax loopholes, and some of us may lose government services.  We’ll live. The alternative is an economic disaster that will throw more people into poverty than you can imagine.  So please, grow up, play nice and get something accomplished for a change.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director


Open the Door and Walk Down the Street

For the first time, Teens Opposing Poverty has coordinated a week-long mission outreach to the homeless in Washington, DC.  Part of the week’s activities included visiting other organizations that work poor and homeless people.

 We visited So Others Might Eat (SOME) and DC Central Kitchen. Both of these organizations do incredible work for the poor and homeless.  DC Central Kitchen provides 5,000 meals a day that are served through a variety of soup kitchens, Meals on Wheels and other programs.  They also have a training program that moves people from homelessness to employment (at a living wage) in the food service industry.  SOME has a soup kitchen, food pantry, clothes closet, low income housing, a warehouse full of furniture and other essential items and a long-term rehab program, along with providing medical, dental and mental health care.

 The people who took us on our tours were passionate about what they do and totally focused on their mission. 

 That is a good thing and a not-so-good thing.

 It’s good because passion and focus on your mission may be the only motivations to carry you through tough times when you are in the nonprofit world. It also keeps all of us who work with an organization or ministry on track.   I am often the same way with TOP, and it has been an important reason why we have stayed alive during the lean seasons.

 But that kind of focus can also be a negative.  We (fingers pointing back to me) too readily put on blinders and fail to connect with our fellow servants.  Thus we often re-invent the wheel, creating unnecessary duplication of services. 

 I’ve had people suggest that we do all sorts of things to combat poverty from job training to setting up day centers for the homeless to transitional housing.  In my wild imaginings I picture TOP doing those things. But other people are already doing that, and it’s not our mission.  We are often the first point of contact for the people we serve.  Our job is to encourage them, find out what keeps them on the street, and point them to the resources that help them into a new life.

 Getting to know other organizations helps us to do a better job of fulfilling our mission and opens our eyes to new possibilities in how we serve others. A fringe benefit of this interaction is that we learn things that help us do a better job of running the organization.

 If you’re involved in a church or nonprofit organization, I challenge you to open the door and walk down the street to other churches and nonprofits and groups who serve the people you serve.  Learn what they do and how they do it.  Don’t be afraid to form partnerships and cross referrals.  Every once in awhile take off the blinders of passion for your own organization and learn a little from others. You’ll be glad you did.

 God’s grace to you

Steve Jennings


How Long Will You Hide?

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? Psalm 13:1 (NIV)

David, the King of Israel and psalmist,  penned these words about 3,000 years ago, but some things never change. If you live long enough, chances are you will go through at least one time of trouble that will leave you feeling the same way.

You know what it’s like, don’t you? You feel stuck in a hole with no way out. It beats you down. It takes a toll on your mind, body and soul. You feel overwhelmed, frustrated, drained, desperate and angry all at the same time.

It’s awful.

For most of us this pain, and the situation that causes it, will pass. But others get no reprieve.  Broken relationships, addiction, chronic sickness, long-term unemployment and poverty can drive people into the dark pit of despair for a lifetime.

How do they respond? They adapt. Their tough situation in life becomes the “new normal” and they learn how to live in their dark place. They try and fail to “get over the hump” so often that they give up. Once they reach this state of mind, any efforts they make to improve their lives are tainted by the expectation that they will fail again. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I can’t count how many homeless people I have worked with over the last 25 years who have given up trying to get out of their situations. They have embraced the belief that God has hidden His face from them and will forget them forever. For them, it takes a bonfire instead of a spark to light the fire of hope.

And yet that fire can still be lit, even in the heart of someone who has been homeless for 10, 20 or 30 years. I have had the unspeakable joy of seeing it happen.

That is where you and I come in. We can light the fire through friendship, exploring possibilities, re-igniting dreams and showing them that maybe- just maybe- God hasn’t forgotten them after all.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director


Straighten Up

April 4, 2012

Martin Luther King was assassinated on this day in 1968 when I was 12 years old. There was a lot I didn’t understand about racial tensions back then. But when cities burst into riots in the days that followed, I knew enough to be saddened. I knew Dr. King would have mourned that betrayal of his commitment to nonviolence. Although I was young, I clearly remember singer James Brown on the radio in Washington, DC trying to find words that might pour some cooling water on the powder keg that was igniting in the nation’s capital.

The day before he was killed, Dr. King spoke to Memphis sanitation workers who were trying to form a union. “I’ve been to the mountaintop!” he exclaimed. “Mine eyes have seen glory of the coming of the Lord!” were the last words he spoke to an audience. I heard these words and was made aware of their timing when I was searching for my own faith. I marveled at their prophetic power, and it helped me to see a God who was present with us, who could prepare our hearts, minds and souls for things we could not foresee.

Today, I heard another line from that speech that resonated with me: “Whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they’re going somewhere because a man can’t ride your back unless it’s bent.”

As I pondered these words of Dr. King, images of the downtrodden people I have known flashed in my mind’s eye. It renewed my passion and focus in ministry and helped me see one thing that the church can help poor and oppressed people accomplish better than anybody else.

We can help people “straighten their backs up.”

We can help them stand on the shoulders of Jesus. Although His back was bent beneath the weight of the cross and our sins, He is strong enough to lift us up.

We can let them know that somebody believes in them and that they are precious, not only in God’s sight, but in ours. Our acceptance of them as humans of equal value helps them stand straighter and more boldly confront the challenges set before them.

It’s not as easy to see the results of this gift as it is to see somebody eat the food we hand out, but it is far more important. Even if their situation in the world never changes, they will change. Even if they remain on the streets, they will “go somewhere” because they recapture that key element of humanity that is too often torn away from them. The food is important for the moment. Helping people “straighten their backs up” is for a lifetime and for eternity.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings
Executive Director

Unlikely Friends

Sometimes you meet someone and you become instant friends.  That happened to me awhile back.  I went to Massachusetts for some training on media interviews with one of the more brilliant marketing experts in the country, Shel Horowitz (http://shelhorowitz.com/).   He’s the author of Principled Profit, Grassroots Marketing (a must-have for bootstrap marketers), The Penny Pinching Hedonist, Marketing without Megabucks and his latest, Guerilla Marketing Goes Green.  He’s a true wordsmith and a master at getting the most bang for your marketing buck.

 The odd thing about our friendship is that Shel and I disagree on a whole host of issues.  Shel is liberal on most issues.  I’m mostly conservative. Our religious views are quite different.  Yet despite our apparent incompatibility, our friendship quickly flourished.


 First, we found our common ground.  Shel and I both believe in leading a simple, responsible lifestyle.  We both enjoy hiking and drinking in nature’s wonders as we go.  We both get riled at the sight of injustice and corruption. It didn’t take us long to find lots of other areas where we agreed.

 Second is integrity.  Shel lives what he believes.  He does what he says he’ll do, and he won’t be shy about telling the truth.   I try to be the same way in my life.  Unfortunately, integrity seems to be a dying value in much of our culture.  So when I meet someone who has it, I am drawn to them.

 Third, it’s OK to disagree.  We accepted our differences and voiced our positions in friendly, reasonable conversation.  You can’t bring everybody to your side.  Jesus didn’t even reach everybody he came in contact with.  So Shel and I both took time to listen and learn from each other. We didn’t change each other’s opinions, but we broadened our minds.

 It’s not hard to get along with people.  Instead of focusing on our differences, try to find some common ground.  There’s more of that kind of real estate than you can imagine.  From that starting point, make an effort to truly listen.  Digest what the other person is saying.  In far too many discussions we humans are guilty of concentrating on how we will advance our position and fail to truly hear the views of the other person.  You don’t have to agree, but you must try to understand.

 Yes, Shel and I are unlikely friends. I can’t speak for him, but my life is richer for it.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director